WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) said Tuesday he was leery of casting himself as "more religious than my neighbor" as he aligned himself on an array of issues with a politically influential Christian group.
Bush in a morning news conference tried to strike a note of tolerance. He was asked about remarks made at Ronald Reagan's (search) burial service last Friday by Ron Reagan, the former president's son, criticizing politicians who use religion for political gain.
"I've always said I think it's very important for someone not to try to take the speck out of somebody's else's eye when they may have a log in their own," Bush said, invoking the same biblical passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew that he had used when asked about gay marriage in July 2003.
"In other words, I'm very mindful about saying, you know, 'Oh, vote for me, I'm more religious than my neighbor."'
"I think it's important for people of religion to serve," Bush said, adding: "I think it is very important for people who are serving to make sure there's a separation of church and state."
In the afternoon, Bush reiterated his rejection of gay marriage (search), abortion and cloning — three issues staunchly opposed by his political base of conservative Christians. He spoke in remarks fed by satellite to the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis.
"The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith," said Bush, a Methodist. "And government, by strengthening and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all."
Bush announced Feb. 24 that he favored a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The amendment has virtually no chance of winning the needed two-thirds support in both the House and Senate this election year. Bush has only rarely spoken out on it since February.
But he hit the hot-button issue in his address to the Southern Baptists, who are the biggest Protestant denomination in the country with 16 million members. Conventioneers rewarded Bush with the longest applause of his remarks.
Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention started an initiative to "liberate" gays from their homosexuality by befriending them and convincing them they should accept Jesus as their savior. Church leaders asked their 42,000 churches to reach out compassionately to gays, focusing on how Christianity can save them.
Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative" in 2000, and is trying anew to bridge the divide between his conservative base and critical swing voters. Some advisers fear any hint of intolerance would alienate middle-of-the-road Americans.